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Mississippi roads report reignites tax debate

PAUL HAMPTON/SUN HERALDAnyone who's ventured on Lafayette Road in Gulfport probably got a jarring lesson in road repair. Chris Vignes, spokesman for the city of Gulfport, said the city has spent $21 million on road projects over the past three years.
PAUL HAMPTON/SUN HERALDAnyone who's ventured on Lafayette Road in Gulfport probably got a jarring lesson in road repair. Chris Vignes, spokesman for the city of Gulfport, said the city has spent $21 million on road projects over the past three years.

Driving on Mississippi roads has become more costly, and more deadly, over the past three years, a Washington think tank says in a new report.

And, the Mississippi Economic Council, the state chamber of commerce, is using the report to try to convince lawmakers to put hundreds of millions of dollars more into the state road and bridge program. But another free-market lobbying group in the state questions the report and the need for tax increases to pay for better roads.

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TRIP, the think tank that is funded by insurers, highway builders, equipment builders, unions and engineers, all of which have a stake in road building, studied Mississippi's roads in 2013 and 2015.

In 2013, it estimated that driving on Mississippi roads cost drivers $1.6 billion in vehicle operation and maintenance costs, lost time and wasted fuel because of congestion and traffic accidents. In its report released last week, that cost had increased to $2.25 billion.

"Motorists are driving on rough roads that are beating up their vehicles," Rocky Moretti, director of policy and research at TRIP, said Thursday in Jackson. "We also found 13 percent of the state's bridges are structurally deficient and another 7 percent are functionally obsolete."

The annual cost to drivers on the Coast, TRIP estimated, was $1,061 in the 2013 report and $1,272 in 2015. In the 2013 report, it said an average of 728 people died on Mississippi roads from 2007 to 2011; some of the deaths it said, could be attributed to highways that were poorly maintained or lacked safety features. In the latest report, it said the fatality rate on non-interstate roads was four times that on all other roads in the state.

"These conditions are only going to get worse if greater funding is not made available at the local, state and federal levels," said Will Wilkins, TRIP's executive director, as the latest report was released. "Without additional transportation funding Mississippi's transportation system will become increasingly deteriorated and congested, the state will miss out on opportunities for economic growth and quality of life will suffer."

The local effect

In the same time period covered by the two reports, Gulfport and Biloxi, the two biggest cities were spending millions to alleviate congestion, replace substandard bridges and fix ailing roads.

For instance, the Lorraine Road Bridge over the Biloxi River, the dividing line between Biloxi and Gulfport, will cost $9.6 million to replace. Biloxi, Gulfport and Harrison County each put up $800,000 with the rest coming from the state and Gulfport Regional Planning Commission. That deal took years to reach, though, and for a while during those negotiations, the bridge was closed to school buses because engineers deemed it unsafe.

Chris Vignes, spokesman for the city of Gulfport, said the city has spent $21 million on road projects over the past three years. That includes a $10 million bond for paving, $4 million to widen stretches of Three Rivers and Creosote roads, $3 million for Seaway Road widening and $4 million for widening 28th Street and several smaller projects.

Biloxi spokesman Vincent Creel said the city has a laundry list of big-ticket items that has been around for years: a new Popp's Ferry Road bridge on the Back Bay, a new connector between Interstate 10 and U.S. 90, and a Popp's Ferry extension.

"These are major public safety issues, in terms of (hurricane) evacuation and general accessibility," said Creel, "as well as economic development drivers."

Other side of road

But not everyone agrees the roads are that bad, or that the Legislature needs to raise taxes to fix them.

Russ Latino, president of the Mississippi Americans for Prosperity, points to other studies that say Mississippi is spending too much on new roads and too little on repair. Most of the studies agree on one thing, it would cost well over $1 billion annually for road and bridge repair.

A study by Smart Growth America, one of the studies cited by Latino, in 2011 put that number at $1.4 billion, and that is what TRIP said the American Road & Transportation Builders Association said was being spent on roads in 2013.

In 2013, TRIP was calling for a "substantial boost" in highway funding but this year -- relying heavily on a Ramping Up Mississippi's Economy Through Transportation, a report by MEC that was released late last year -- TRIP found a $6.6 billion backlog worth of repairs and improvement were needed. And it referred to MEC's assertion that an additional $375 million was needed annually to get roads and bridges up to snuff. Of that, MEC says $300 million is needed for state roads and another $75 million for "local" roads.

MEC has suggested several taxes that could raise more money for roads. That suggestion, Latino said, is premature.

"What we've been saying all along is there should be a legitimate effort made to study the operation of MDOT to determine if there can be savings," Latino said. "Then after you've done that, there should be a legitimate effort to look through the rest of the budget and figure out if there's been money to be shifted to MDOT to the extent we identify legitimate needs.

"Before we do that, it seems horribly premature to ask Mississippi taxpayers to pay more for roads."

He said even the MEC report says it did not consider the operation of MDOT when making its recommendations.

Even after the MDOT operations are examined, he said, lawmakers should "accurately assess what additional need (for repairs and maintenance) there is."

How bad are roads?

Latino cited a report by Reason Foundation -- which like Americans for Prosperity is funded partly by Charles and David Koch, the Wichita, Kan., industrialists with libertarian leanings -- that ranks Mississippi sixth in the nation for urban interstates, eighth for state-controlled roads and second for least-congested roads.

Latino made similar arguments in a memo to Gov. Phil Bryant, a memo that quickly was attacked by MDOT. Then Latino wrote a second letter responding to MDOT.

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Meanwhile, it appears the bill most likely to deal with the road funding issue has yet to be assigned a committee in the House after it passed the Senate more than a week ago.

House members have been embroiled in a dispute over a bill that would make major changes in the operation of the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport. That has resulted in Democrats demanding every bill be read, the GOP responding by using a device that reads the bills very quickly and a Democrat responding by suing to slow it down.

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